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Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Image of Christ in Modern Art

For some time I have been arguing that, as Daniel A. Siedell suggested in God in the Gallery, "an alternative history and theory of the development of modern art" is needed, "revealing that Christianity has always been present with modern art, nourishing as well as haunting it, and that modern art cannot be understood without understanding its religious and spiritual components and aspirations." In my Airbrushed from Art History series of posts I have highlighted some of the artists and movements (together with the books that tell their stories) that should feature in that alternative history when it comes to be written.

Richard Harries has recently published The Image of Christ in Modern Art which is a contribution towards the piecing together of this alternative history. The book is based on a series of lectures given through Gresham College and suffers from insufficient editing of the lecture format resulting in much cross-referencing to earlier sections, something which works against the cohesion of its essentially chronological format.

As Rowan Williams wrote in his review of this book, "The art of our age is by no means as secular as some think." Similarly, Harries puts the argument for a comprehensive alternative history of the kind noted above clearly and succintly:

"Interest in contemporary art with a spiritual dimension or religious theme is keener today that it has been since Victorian times. Cathedrals hold exhibitions and commission works, and indeed so do some parish churches. Some of the biggest names in the art world often draw on or refer to a religious theme or seem, to the viewer, to have a spiritual dimension to their work.

It might once have been thought that the advent of modernism before World War I had put an end to art with any explicit religious reference. That has proved not to be the case."

Possibly for this very reason he is also clear about the limited scope (despite the comprehensive claim of its title) of The Image of Christ in Modern Art. He writes in the book's Introduction:

"Apart from one very brief reference to Barnett Newman, there is no art from America. There is also no art from outside Europe included, though I am aware of a rich field to be surveyed, for in every culture where the Christian faith has gained a place there have been artists who have wanted to express their faith through art. Christ for All People: Celebrating a World of Christian Art indicates some of this richness and variety, as does Beyond Belief: Modern Art and the Religious Imagination. There is Christian art from Africa, China and South East Asia. There has been some particularly interesting work from India from people such as Jyoti Sahi, reproduced in Faces of Vision, and Solomon Raj. The focus of this book however, though it begins with the German expressionists, is primarily on Great Britain, especially the post-World War II period."

"The Image of Christ in Modern Art explores the challenges presented by the radical and rapid changes of artistic style in the 20th century to artists who wished to relate to traditional Christian imagery. In the 1930s David Jones said that he and his contemporaries were acutely conscious of ‘the break’, by which he meant the fragmentation and loss of a once widely shared Christian narrative and set of images. In this highly illustrated book, Richard Harries looks at some of the artists associated with the birth of modernism such as Epstein and Rouault as well as those with a highly distinctive understanding of religion such as Chagall and Stanley Spencer. He discusses the revival of confidence associated with the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral after World War II and the commissioning of work by artists like Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland and John Piper before looking at the very testing last quarter of the 20th century. He shows how here, and even more in our own time, fresh and important visual interpretations of Christ have been created both by well known and less well known artists. In conclusion he suggests that the modern movement in art has turned out to be a friend, not a foe of Christian art. Through a wide and beautiful range of images and insightful text, Harries explores the continuing challenge, present from the beginning of Christian art, as to how that which is visual can in some way indicate the transcendent."
The Image of Christ in Modern Art is, therefore, a valuable addition to books, such as Art, Modernity & Faith, Beyond Belief, Christian ArtGod in the Gallery and On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, which, to some extent, survey aspects of an alternative history of modern art revealing "that Christianity has always been present with modern art." 


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